HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. --
Their eyes are fatigued. They’ve been fixated on the same screens for eight straight hours. The moment comes -- the time to strike. With the sensor operator locked onto his target, the pilot releases the hellfire missile to meet its fate. The target they’ve been watching for days is destroyed, taking enemies’ lives with it.
The crew breathes a sigh of relief. Shortly after, they open the door to the Ground Control Station and walk straight into a wall of hot, dry air, and the bright sun beaming down on them.
After a mission de-brief, they get in their cars and leave. They go home to their wives, sons and daughters – people that depend on them.
The drastic shift in focus from mission to home life is one of the unique stressors to the Remotely Piloted Aircraft and Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance community. To better understand and combat those stressors, Holloman holds an annual exercise, Top Knife.
“The main focus of Top Knife is to take our flight surgeons, physiologists, psychologists and chaplains and give them as much knowledge as possible on the current challenges facing our RPA and ISR personnel. We then provide them solutions or leads to solutions that enable greater operational effectiveness,” said Maj. Zachary Garrett, a 49th Medical Group aerospace and operational physiologist.
Personnel from six bases across the Air Force came to Holloman for the exercise. During the week-long course, they discussed the challenges RPA personnel face fighting the war from their home stations.
“I think what separates RPA personnel from the traditional manned aviation community to the greatest extent is the dramatic clash and parallelism they get with being at home station and having to fight the war the same day,” Garrett said. “Other aircrew get to pack their bags, out-process, go deploy and fight the war for us. Then they come home, in-process and have some downtime. Not to say the RPA and ISR personnel don’t get downtime or off days, but they’re having to do [deployment missions] on a daily basis. That dramatic change in personality, objective and [mission] thinking on a daily basis creates some unique stressors.”
The course also addresses fatigue, sleep hygiene and work conditions.
“The predominant area that we study is the ergonomic layout for the Ground Control Stations,” Garrett said. “If they have low-light conditions there’s a tremendous scanning technique required, where individuals have to look extremely to their left, or extremely to their right, or up above a normal viewing line, which creates neck strain and visual fatigue problems. These issues become operationally relevant as you get individuals performing flying operations for hours on end. All those factors combine and create a much more adverse situation for a pilot, sensor operator, or intelligence analyst. Focusing on those human factors – such as how a screen is laid out, or where to scan to collect information creates the hindrance RPA aircrew and the distributed common ground system personnel encounter on any work day.”
However, Top Knife is not limited to RPA pilots and sensor operators.
“The course is not exclusive to what a pilot or sensor operator accomplishes – it encompasses the entire chain of support that enables our RPA aircrew to do their mission effectively,” Garrett said. “We expand it as broadly as possible because the issues we see with the RPA aircrew expand to everyone in their chain of support, and we’d rather be more inclusive than exclusive in making sure our medical and chaplain corps support provides as much quality care as we possibly can.”
Top Knife students can take information they learned throughout the course and apply it to personnel at their bases, as well as in future assignments.
“They are taking knowledge and applying it to traditional manned aviation,” Garrett said. “However, it’s also for personnel that may be getting assigned to Remotely Piloted Aircraft wings and units, so they can apply it in the future. Some of the new information that we have covered mostly centers around bringing students together and showing them our problem statements and then allowing their creative efforts to give us potential solutions or discuss what others may be able to implement at their bases. I think the group thinking and discussions where we can exchange ideas is a tremendous benefit that we can reap throughout the course.”